When Walker woke up, he found Aura sitting alone in the galley, hovering over a datapad. She glanced over to him for a brief second, then turned away. Her eyes were red, worn as though she’d been crying. Walker didn’t care much for awkward moments, so he simply ignored it, gliding past her as he slammed his water bottle into the dispenser and listened to the quietness of it filling.
The night before was also quite awkward. After hearing all about Aura’s… peculiarities, Walker had pretty much locked himself in the cockpit. Not that it was any different than any other day, but usually he wasn’t avoiding anyone. Nonetheless, the young girl— old lady? Whatever she was, she weighed heavy in his thoughts. Both wonder and fear were in conflict in his mind.
As the bottle filled, he turned to face her. “We should be clearing the belt by the afternoon,” he said. “From there it’s smooth all the way to the Combine. Still no word back from Singh, but these things can take time.”
She looked over to him and regarded him before nodding. “Yes,” she replied. “I’ve been familiarizing myself with… everything.”
“You mean the ship?” he asked.
“Starline model. S-25?” she asked. “Obviously mostly aftermarket. The EthOS was developed for long-haul vessels in 2080. One of the first consumer-level artificially intelligent operating systems. She was initially meant for entertainment and no more than basic ship interfacing.”
“Yeah, EthOS is more Mickey’s thing,” he said. “But she’s been heavily modded. That much I know.”
“Clearly,” she replied. “And this Combine. I had suspected it was the remnants of the Jovian Commonwealth, but in my day they were a series of twelve stations. It was rather brilliant of them to combine into a single station. Harsher on some resources, but it allowed them to save on other, more important resources. I knew the first Chancellor, you know? Not well, but we’d met a number of times at social functions before I took the job with LegionCorp.”
“I… ah,” Walker stammered. It was still hard to imagine just how old this woman was, or that she was experiencing their way of life for the first time.
“I apologise,” Aura added. “I realize this must be strange for you.”
“No, it’s cool,” Walker said, pulling his bottle from the dispenser and taking a swig. “It can’t be normal for you, either.”
“I suppose not,” she answered. She looked to Walker thoughtfully. “I am frustrated in some ways. EthOS filled in as many blanks as she could, but an AI is rather limited in her experience. If it’s not too personal, could you perhaps help me with that?”
“I guess,” Walker replied. “Yeah, sure. Shoot.”
“I’m judging from your muscle mass that you weren’t born terrestrially, were you?”
Walker laughed. “Well thanks for noticing. But nah, I wasn’t born on Mars or Europa. I was a Jovian kid. Born on the Combine, grew up mostly in GabSec.”
“GabSec? Ah. Gabrielle Station?”
He nodded. “Yeah, my dad was… well, he wasn’t a very nice guy, and he associated with even less nice people. GabSec was the sort of place nice people shouldn’t be. When I was twelve, somebody who had enough of his bullshit decided to push him out an airlock.”
“My God,” Aura replied. “Were they caught?”
Walker shrugged. “Hard to say,” he replied. “I think the Guard were too busy high-fiving each other to worry about catching whoever did it. But between you and me, I saw the shit he used to do. He probably deserved it. He was running with Corridor at the time.”
“Yeah, you have to know the type. They call themselves businessmen, but make it their business to get a piece of everyone else’s.”
“Organized crime? In Jupiter’s orbit? I know there were problems on Mars regarding crime and street gangs before…” she trailed off.
“Yeah,” he continued. “Some say they’re the ones that really run the Combine. I don’t disbelieve it. That’s why I usually stick to PortSec whenever we’re on the Combine. You avoid Corridor, you avoid politics, and it’s easy to find work and entertainment. That’s where I spent the rest of my life before I got my hands on the Ruin. My mom needed us away from Corridor, and they tend not to bother with the working class so much these days.”
“Your mother, is she still alive?”
“No, I was fifteen when she went. Leukemia.”
“Cancer?” she asked. “How horrible. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s life, right?” He took another swig of his water. “What about you? What was it like walking skyclad?”
“Yeah. You know. Walking around on the surface without a suit. Trees. Animals. Climbing a mountain. Swimming in the ocean.”
Aura absorbed the question and maintained a long pause. She looked Walker in the eye. “Imagine the sun so bright that it lights up an entire hemisphere with the most gorgeous blue you can imagine, and amplify it by an order of magnitude. Taking a deep breath carried to you by a cool breeze while the sun warms your skin, and the breeze lifts the hairs on your arm while you’re assaulted by scents. You could… smell the trees. We used to have deer near my parent’s home that would come right onto the lawn to graze before the war started.”
“War?” Walker asked.
“Yes. The Heterodox War?”
Walker shook his head slowly.
“You’ve not heard of the Heterodox War?”
Walker shrugged. “I remember something about a civil war in school. Something about slaves? To be honest history wasn’t really my subject. I was more of a commerce guy.”
“You’re talking about the American Civil War. That took place nearly two hundred years before I was born. I’m not that old,” she said. “The Heterodox War was… something different. The details on how it started still weren’t entirely clear, even forty years after it was settled. Some say it had been brewing for nearly a hundred years. Others said closer to sixty. Regardless, the Heterodox War was a testament to the boundless stupidity of mankind… but also a beacon for the future.” She turned her head toward the ceiling. “It had first threatened to erupt in the early twenty-first century. An American president was elected that many people opposed, often to a degree which some might have considered parody. To silence the opposition, he enacted the Reformation, which saw a massive rise of right-wing elements both moderate and extreme, and all were demanding order while exerting control, while the left wing demanded progress while exerting anarchy. They were… a dark time of extremes on both sides of the political spectrum. Between terrorism and police states, it was a hard era, but it’s the era the first colonies on Mars were founded. It’s a surprise it didn’t erupt into a true Civil War then.”
“With the founding of Chloeville colony, the people once again had something to unite them. A grand future, and the political division between people all over the planet began to mend. The right were sated by a brief return to order, while the left focused instead on expansionist ideas. But unfortunately, we never took the time to learn the causes of the second division, and so we repeated the mistakes of the past, ignorant to what had caused them to happen in the first place only fifty years later.”
“It started in the colleges,” she explained. “Trouble had been brewing over competing ideologies between students for years, but they chose to remain ignorant of what happens when one political force attempt to silence another in the halls of learning. It started with a group of students protesting guests invited by other students on the basis that they were offensive. And perhaps they were, but what came next pales any offense they might have taken in comparison.”
“For years that practice continued, all amidst cries from those versed in our past mistakes what would happen when you attempt to silence someone based on taken offense. Eventually, the protests began to turn violent. Nobody can really peg down who started it, and scholars were still arguing over that by the time I left Earth. But the violence grew from singular events to angry mobs. Riots began to form. Counter-rioters rose up against them. The last straw was a bomb that went off at the University of Missouri, killing nearly ninety people. To this day, nobody is certain who planted the bomb or who it was meant to strike. But it didn’t matter. Each side of the new divide blamed the other, and each one upheld their chosen political ideology as the one true way of life.” She sighed.
“Another event took place at Berkeley. Then another at Oxford. Tehran. Vancouver. New York. Before we knew it, it expanded from the campuses into the streets, and even into governments. States and Provinces attempted successions from their host nations. Parliaments turned into battle zones. For eight years, it lasted.” She looked up to him. “There were… times which I had to escape into the wilderness for a time to stay safe.”
“That’s messed up,” Walker commented. “So how did the war end?”
Aura smirked. “It didn’t. At least not in the way one might expect a war to end. The Heterodox War was a battle among human minds. Each demanding the others live as their ideology demands. The religious demanded religion. The secular demanded secularization. The left demanded the people be supported. The right demanded the people be strengthened. Entire cities became bitter warzones, but on a Canadian coastal city, of all places, a new political paradigm began to emerge. Heterodoxy.” She looked at him. “They started as a paramilitary made up of those from all sorts of different backgrounds. People from the left and right sick of the fighting. The theists and the atheists. The identitarians and the individualists. They were the remnants of the Academics that remembered the strength of obversity.”
“You know what a coin is, correct?”
“It has two sides. Heads and tails, traditionally,” she explained. “But if you were to attempt to remove one side of the coin, the result would be the destruction of the other side. The two sides need each other in order to exist. So as the paramilitary grew, they began to envelope the west coast of the United States and Canada. They were so quick about it. I remember watching a livestream of the Battle of Portland. That was the turning point. They invaded the city, and within six hours had arrested the leaders of both the leading factions. Then pockets started to appear on the Eastern coast, South America, Australia, Europe, Asia and Africa. Within two weeks, all the cells had worked together, not only ending the violence but recruiting from all the sides within it, soldiers and operatives also sick of fighting for so long, and an agreement was struck. Or, more rather, a philosophy.”
She turned to face Walker. “We keep the debate alive. Always. We challenge each other on our ideas, and we help each other when we’re in agreement. But never again shall we lift a finger against our fellow man simply because we disagree.”
“That sounds easier said than done.”
“Oh certainly,” she said. “There were the worn soldiers on both sides who refused to work with those they perceived to be the enemy. For a few years, random attacks continued. But they weren’t sustainable. Not after a decade of worldwide civil war.”
Walker absorbed the information. He thought he remembered something of what she’d explained, but it was different hearing it from the perspective of someone who lived through it.
“In the end, we reached an outright rejection of orthodoxy. We decided, almost unilaterally, that there were necessary evils to keep a society functioning. The educational system was overhauled, improved immensely. Students were taught from an early age how to dismantle beliefs, including their own. Academics later became cultural icons, replacing many of the vapid celebrities and musicians of previous eras. People were allowed to have differing ideas, and how progress was to be settled became more about the people’s consensus that the acts of a single, agenda-driven political party. The best ideas rose to the top, and the worst sunk to the bottom.” She looked at him. “We realized the best way to combat bad ideas was to allow them to be spoken. If nothing was immune from critical examination, any idea was allowed a platform. Every idea could be challenged at any point.”
“Sounds like a slow-moving society if you ask me.”
She nodded. “It was and it wasn’t. Expansion happened quicker after the violence subsided, but changes in government came slower. Every year, the balance shifted, then shifted back. A balance was struck between capitalism and socialism. Sometimes capitalism would be preferred, other times it was socialist methods of living. But the key was that it was balanced. They declared 2091 to be the first year of the Pax Terra. The first year in all of human history when no nation committed war against another. A few years after that, the crime rates reached the lowest rate it had ever been in most areas of the world. Certainly skirmishes happened from time to time in the years following, but there hasn’t been a full-blown war since.”
“Well,” Walker said. “That’s not entirely true.”
Aura looked over to him. “Right,” she said, sighing. “The Martian Reformation.” She held her datapad aloft. “Unfortunately, I find the recorded history on the subject to be…”
“Propaganda?” Walker asked. “You’d probably be right. The Corps like to say they saved Mars, but consensus on the Combine is far different. Did you read about the Chloeville Massacre?”
She nodded. “The Encyclopedia calls it the Chloeville Disaster, but yes. The sudden death of the farmer population in Chloeville facilitated a Mars-wide famine, extreme rationing.”
“Sudden death probably isn’t accurate,” Walker explained. “Everyone on the Combine believes that was planned in the early days. The Corporate Congress had just formed, right? So they needed Mars’ assets in order to make it work right, but a lot of the workers straight-up refused to just hand over control of the colonies to some new empire after they’d had relative independence from day one. Then Chloeville happened and the famines started. Suddenly the same people who were trying to keep Corp Cattle off-world were begging for them to help.”
“It fits,” Aura said. “Create a problem only you can solve, and people will demand you be their hero.”
“Some still fought,” he said. “But… they couldn’t hold out for long. Some people just… left Mars, headed off to parts unknown. Others turned in their own people for a chance at a spot on Roving Eden.”
“Roving Eden? That was a luxury hotel in my day. It’s still there?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty much the capital of the Corporate Congress. I’m told it’s about as close to paradise as you can get.”
Aura nodded. “If it’s anything like I remember, then yes. It was only a year old before…” she paused.
“Zero Day?” Walker continued for her.
She didn’t respond. Instead, she pressed a few buttons on her datapad. She swiped the display a number of times before settling on a single entry. She chuckled to herself.
“What is it?”
“Just a past lover,” she said. “Her name was Becca. She worked aboard Roving Eden. It appears she survived long enough to raise children. That’s nice to see.”
“She?” Walker asked. “So you’re… ahh,” he stammered.
“I’m gay,” she replied. “Is that odd to you?”
“Well, not odd,” Walker replied. “Just… complicated. I mean, I guess it depends on where you are. On Mars, for instance, everyone who is able is obliged to engage in the breeding programs by the time they’re old enough to have children. Men and women alike, so being gay is really frowned upon there, but there are an awful lot of bisexuals. On the Combine it’s a bit different— population there has to be carefully maintained, so breeding works by lottery, and an unexpected pregnancy can often mean your life is going to end, so same-sex relationships are encouraged.”
“Interesting,” she replied. “And the Congress?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think they care either way,” he said. “I know executives aren’t usually included in breeding programs, particularly the women. Too much risk, and they tend to have important jobs. But the lower-level employees? They’re stuck to whatever their contracts say. If it says they breed, they breed. Gay or straight, you don’t get a pass from that. But I understand they’re much more clinical about it than Mars or the Combine. Eugenics play a part.”
“Of course they do,” she replied.
“Hey, I should get up to the cockpit,” Walker announced. “You should get some sleep before the others wake up. Gavin’s got a predilection for loud music and Mickey’s usually banging on some piece of metal.”
“Nanomachines, Walker,” Aura said, tapped her temple. “I don’t need a tenth of the amount of sleep you might. A nap twice a week is all I need to function normally.”
Walker wore a look of surprise on his face. Sure it made sense, but damn… now that was a superpower Walker wouldn’t mind.
“Well,” he continued. “Then if you’re bored later on, feel free to come up and tell me more about Earth.”
“Only if you tell me more about life on the Combine,” she replied.